#197: THIS GYPSY PASSION FOR SEPARATION. I have remarked on the experience of returning to a poem or a piece of prose I’d not seen for decades, and finding it wholly present, sometimes verbatim, in memory. Just a few days ago I picked up a copy of Elaine Feinstein’s translations from Marina Tsvetaeva, and this poem appeared before me like a revenant:
What is this gypsy passion for separation, this
readiness to rush off –- when we’ve just met?
My head rests in my hands as I
realize, looking into the night
that no one turning over our letters has
yet understood how completely and
how deeply faithless we are, which is
to say: how true we are to ourselves.
Like her close contemporary Anna Akhmatova—“with whom she is sometimes fruitlessly compared,” one critic grumbled—Tsvetaeva’s life was hurled around by the convulsions of Russian history. Passion, rejection, destitution—these extremes are the substance of her daily round, which she expressed with a rarely matched ferocity. Her “Poem of the End,” about the last days of her affair with Konstantyn Rodziewicz, is as close as language can come to the experience of putting a red-hot piece of metal against the flesh of your lower arm. Every descriptive term of Tsvetaeva’s art used by her translators—roughness, abruptness, vibrancy—conveys this sense of a wild horse corralled. And because these emotions seem the natural result of the terrors going on around her, she escapes any taint of hysteria or exaggeration. Tsvetaeva never had to make drama; Russia did that for her. Even her satire has this serrated edge: in the famous “Floorcleaner’s Song,” she writes: “The floorcleaners ferret out the house’s hidden things. What do they flush out? Cosiness, warmth, tidiness, order. Smells: incense, piety. Bygones.” For someone like Tsvetaeva, there is no rest, no respite: “My ear attends to you, / as a mother hears in her sleep.”
There is one tragic contrast between Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva—to continue the fruitless endeavor—that can be evoked, if not defined. Akhmatova passionately loved Russia, refused to leave it, and perhaps Russia in return provided her with a kind of Antaean strength. She also refused to go away, to die. In dire poverty, with her apartment bugged and her verse denied publication, she continued, sneaking out poems, working for decades on her late “Poem Without a Hero,” until she committed the final outrageous rudeness of outliving Stalin, at which point the Russian government allowed her a begrudging admiration and a bit of travel. Tsvetaeva, educated abroad, attempted a kind of life amid the Russian émigré community, only to be roughly rejected; she was a nomad for the later part of her life. Amid the tumult of her times it’s difficult to guess at at any one circumstance that might have brought on the devouring depression and anger of her later years. A daughter she attempted to save by placing in an orphanage died of hunger. Her husband was executed for espionage, her daughter imprisoned; she was plagued by the NKVD, who wanted her to be an informant. One of her final poems reads:
I refuse to be. In
the madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live.
With the wolves of the market place
I refuse to howl….
I have no need of holes
for ears, nor prophetic eyes:
to your mad world there is
one answer: to refuse!
On the thirty-first of August, 1941, in a hut in the village of Yelabuga, the body of Marina Tsvetaeva was discovered, where she had hung herself from a nail in the wall.
Tsvetaeva’s poetry and her large work in prose are, bit by bit, still making their way into English. There is as yet no complete and critical edition of the poems comparable to Judith Hemschemeyer and Roberta Reeder’s great work on Akhmatova, published by Zephyr Press, but there has been great progress in the last twenty-odd years; what’s noted below is just a selection. Christopher Whyte has translated the entirety of Milestones, one of her best collections, and two volumes of the notebooks After Russia, all published by Shearsman Books. Dark Elderberry Branch (the title a phrase from Akhmatova) is a nice small mix of Tsvetaeva’s poems and prose, translated by Ilka Kaminsky and Jean Valentine; the edition includes a disc of Tsvetaeva’s poems read in Russian by Polina Barskova and Valzhyna Mort (Alice James Books, 2012). Her long poem The Ratcatcher has been put into English by Angela Livingstone and published by Carcanet (2000). A particularly good selection is Poem of the End: Selected Narrative and Lyrical Poems, translated by Nina Kossman, which gives six of Tsvetaeva’s longer poems as well as over forty of the lyrics. The English poet Elaine Feinstein worked off and on for almost thirty years expanding and refining her superbly expressive versions of Tsvetaeva: the sixth and final edition of the work was published as Bride of Ice: New Selected Poems (Carcanet, 2009). By a nice irony, a Russian vessel named after Tsvetaeva was used for expeditions in the polar regions; one wonders what part of that landscape’s spirit she might have recognized.